Writing Portfolio


'Sausage? Sausage?'

Did you know that there's a museum in London devoted to Samuel Johnson? Dr Johnson's House on Gough Square was where the great lexicographer lived from 1748 to 1759, before he met James Boswell but during the time when he wrote his famous Dictionary of the English Language which was published in 1755. It's a fantastic 300 year-old townhouse located in the maze of alleyways and courtyards north of Fleet Street.

A statue of his cat, Hodge, stands nearby. He was fed on oysters, which in the 18th century weren't the delicacy they are today, and Johnson insisted on buying them himself so that his servant would not come to resent the cat. 

Few people have actually read anything by Johnson nowadays; ironically, the one book concerning one of this country's greatest men of letters that is still widely read is Boswell's biography of him (an assiduous diarist, Boswell took it upon himself to record as many of his friend's witticisms as he could, which came in very handy when he set himself the task of writing his biography). But the number of people who've read Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is itself in all probability dwarfed by the number of people who know that Samuel Johnson was the man who wrote the first dictionary (not actually the first, but definitely the best-researched and most influential prior to the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884) because they saw that episode of Blackadder.

I refer, of course, to the episode in the third series (the Georgian-era one) in which they try to get the Prince Regent to be the patron of the Dictionary. Dr Johnson (played by Robbie Coltraine) is not impressed, and Blackadder, having made up several words in order to wind Johnson up, ends up attempting to re-write the Dictionary after Baldrick inadvertently burns the only copy.

(Before we go any further, I should point out that I am well aware of the extent to which the writers of Blackadder took certain historical liberties; after all, it was a comedy, not a documentary. Johnson's Dictionary was published many decades before the Regency (which Johnson himself did not live to see) while Lord Byron is shown as a contemporary of Johnson's when in reality the former hadn't even been born when the latter died. In other episodes Blackadder, Baldrick and the Prince Regent encounter Pitt the Younger, who also died before the Regency, and are involved in a send-up of The Scarlet Pimpernel which, while the future George IV is a supporting character in said novel, is set some time before he became Regent. But I digress).

One of the attractions at Dr Johnson's House is the Dictionary Room, which houses shelves full of Johnson-related books including several Dictionaries (it is believed that when Johnson lived here, this room was his bedroom; the Dictionary was written upstairs in the Garret). A 1755 original lies opened under glass, while on the table are facsimiles of the two-volume original in which visitors can look up any word of their choosing.

One of the gags in the Blackadder episode is the discovery that Dr Johnson left the word 'sausage' out of his Dictionary. Fans of Blackadder will no doubt be disappointed to learn that in real life, 'sausage' is in fact in there (although 'aardvark' is not). That said, 'sausage' is not where you would expect to find it.

For Johnson had the letters 'u' and 'v' the wrong way round. The order in which these letters come in the alphabet was apparently not standardised until the 19th century. What this means for the word-hunting Blackadder fan is that 'sausage' comes after all of the words beginning with 'sav-', not before. 

After the Dictionary, Johnson set himself the task of editing the works of Shakespeare; his eight-volume critical edition of Shakespeare's plays was published 250 years ago (it proved so popular that the preface was also published separately) and established Johnson as a leading literary critic. Dr Johnson's House is currently housing an exhibition commemorating this, 'Shakespeare in the 18th century: Johnson, Garrick & friends', which will be there until 28th November.

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